If you have determined that your organization’s work involves the interaction of complex technical, mechanical, legal or social systems, and small mistakes can lead to much larger, far-reaching and even catastrophic events, then you are likely in need of a high reliability culture.
The right kind of culture for your organization is determined by your goals. If you need to be “cutting-edge” to thrive in your market space, then a culture of innovation is appropriate. If you are in an industry with highly complex operations and need to avoid failure at any cost, then a high-reliability culture may be more appropriate.
In one way or another, culture helps to shape nearly everything that happens in and around an organization. As important as it is, though, it can be equally as confusing and hard to control. Work cultures seem to emerge as an unexpected by-product of randomness — a brief comment made by a manager, misinterpreted by direct-reports, propagated during water cooler conversations, and exaggerated by unrelated management decisions to downsize, reassign, promote, terminate, etc.
There are a lot of organizations working hard to create an organizational culture including a safety culture that will help ensure a productive and safe workplace. The quest to build from scratch or transform your organizational culture will prove costly if the process stops at quantifying, qualifying and communicating desired results. The essential next step is to ensure alignment of all the elements of the organization that will produce the desired results. What is “Alignment”? Alignment is simply ensuring that every aspect of the organization (people, teams, surroundings, and systems) works together to create desired results. We have previously introduced the concept of “local rationality”; i.e., people make decisions to perform in various ways as a result of the local context in which they find themselves. This context includes factors such as Self (motivation, ability, knowledge, habits, attention, emotion), Others (help, pressure, modeling), Surroundings (equipment, climate, layout) and Systems (rules, rewards/punishments, procedures). The person’s view of that context will impact how they act, which will impact the results that they get. Effective organizational leaders understand this and work to create a context (or “culture”) that increases the chances that their employees will decide to perform in ways that lead to accomplishment of the organizational mission. For example, when changing organizational policy on some issue like “incentive pay” (System), effective leaders will attempt to evaluate the impact of the policy on decision making at all organizational levels. If the policy provides incentive to produce at a higher rate, then it could lead to shortcuts in approved procedures and perhaps even create an incentive to cheat or perform in a less than safe manner. While increasing production, the policy would be “mis-aligned” with other desired results and thus become counter to overall organizational effectiveness.
Culture Alignment We have had the opportunity to help leaders evaluate this type of alignment on several occasions. We call our process “Culture Assessment & Diagnostics” and it involves three primary phases (Diagnosis, Design and Intervention).
Diagnosis If not already done, we have senior management articulate their desired “formal” organizational culture by defining the values and behaviors that they feel will support accomplishment of their mission. We then review Systems (policies and procedures) and Surroundings in light of their alignment with the desired culture. This is followed by interviewing a cross-section of employees at all organizational levels and segments to determine the real “informal” culture that exist. This information allows us to determine if “alignment” currently exists between people, systems and processes. We then deliver a report to senior management with our findings and recommendations.
Design The results of the Diagnostic Phase will provide the information needed to guide the design of any necessary change. Few organizations have perfect alignment and therefore most require some changes to achieve alignment. Management determines what changes are needed and then they design a plan to make those changes.
Intervention Every organization is different and thus needs different “interventions” to bring about the desired culture. Some organizations need training programs to impact employee knowledge and ability. Some need accountability systems to ensure consistent adherence to the desired cultural values and behaviors. Some need to change reporting structure. Once the plan has been determined, it is implemented and the appropriate changes will hopefully lead to greater alignment and thus greater effectiveness.
What’s the point? Whether you use a process like the one just described or not, continuous evaluation of alignment between formal and informal cultures is needed to remain or become an effective and safe organization. This is especially true if your organization is not currently getting the results that are expected.
In a recent blog we discussed Peer Pressure, Conformity and Safety Culture. As with peer pressure, authority pressure and the resulting obedience can be either good or bad. It is hard to imagine a functioning society without obedience to police officers or successful organizations without obedience to supervisors. It is also not hard to imagine the negative impact of power hungry, authoritarian police or over zealous, production oriented supervisors. The study of obedience to authority has its roots in the famous research of Stanley Milgram (1963). His research was stimulated by the Nazi atrocities seen during WWII. The question he attempted to answer was…how could seemingly moral people follow instructions to kill innocent civilians simply at the command of a superior officer? The experimental conditions that he utilized involved a series of subjects who were required to “administer” electric shocks to a confederate when the confederate failed to answer a question correctly. In reality no shock was actually administered but the test subjects were unaware of this and thought that they were actually administering increasingly powerful shocks to the confederate. If the test subjects balked at administering the shocks, they were directed/commanded by the experimenter (in white lab coat) to continue. The “shocks” began at 15-volts and progressively increased to a maximum of 450-volts which could in reality kill the confederate if actually administered. The results indicated that a majority (62.5%) of test subjects went all the way up to the maximum shock when directed to do so by the authority figure. Many of the test subjects showed signs of distress, indicating that they did not agree with the directive, but the majority did so anyway.
Perhaps even more concerning is recent research that indicates that even having a resistant ally did not stop others from being obedient to authority (Burger, 2009). The power of authority pressure can be extreme. While the Milgram studies are focused on the negative effects of bad authority pressure, obedience which leads to prosocial behavior ultimately contributes to culture and organizational success. It is difficult to achieve success in social groups whether it be society or organizations without obedience. Understanding the powerful influence that leaders have on the performance of their employees and establishing cultural norms and developing the leadership skills that lead to desired performance can have a profound impact on how these individuals lead and on how their employees respond when pushed to perform in an undesired manner whether that performance relates to production, ethics or safety.
Employees’ willingness and ability to stop unsafe operations is one of the most critical parts of any safety management system, and here’s why: Safety managers cannot be everywhere at once. They cannot write rules for every possible situation. They cannot engineer the environment to remove every possible risk, and when the big events occur, it is usually because of a complex and unexpected interaction of many different elements in the work environment. In many cases, employees working at the front line are not only the first line of defense, they are quite possibly the most important line of defense against these emergent hazards. Our 2010 study of safety interventions found that employees intervene in only about 39% of the unsafe operations that they recognize while at work. In other words, employees’ silence is a critical gap in safety management systems, and it is a gap that needs to be honestly explored and resolved.
An initial effort to resolve this problem - Stop Work Authority - has been beneficial, but it is insufficient. In fact, 97% of the people who participated in the 2010 study said that their company has given them the authority to stop unsafe operations. Stop Work Authority’s value is in assuring employees that they will not be formally punished for insubordination or slowing productivity. While fear of formal retaliation inhibits intervention, there are other, perhaps more significant forces that keep people silent.
Some might assume that the real issue is that employees lack sufficient motivation to speak up. This belief is unfortunately common among leadership, represented in a common refrain - “We communicated that it is their responsibility to intervene in unsafe operations; but they still don’t do it. They just don’t take it seriously.” Contrary to this common belief, we have spoken one-on-one with thousands of frontline employees and nearly all of them, regardless of industry, culture, age or other demographic category, genuinely believe that they have the fundamental, moral responsibility to watch out for and help to protect their coworkers. Employees’ silence is not simply a matter of poor motivation.
At the heart this issue is the “context effect.” What employees think about, remember and care about at any given moment is heavily influenced by the specific context in which they find themselves. People literally see the world differently from one moment to the next as a result of the social, physical, mental and emotional factors that are most salient at the time. The key question becomes, “What factors in employees’ production contexts play the most significant role in inhibiting intervention?” While there are many, and they vary from one company to the next, I would like to introduce four common factors in employees’ production contexts:
THE UNIT BIAS
Think about a time when you were focused on something and realized that you should stop to deal with a different, more significant problem, but decided to stick with the original task anyway? That is the unit bias. It is a distortion in the way we view reality. In the moment, we perceive that completing the task at hand is more important than it really is, and so we end up putting off things that, outside of the moment, we would recognize as far more important. Now imagine that an employee is focused on a task and sees a coworker doing something unsafe. “I’ll get to it in a minute,” he thinks to himself.
This is a a well documented phenomenon, whereby we are much less likely to intervene or help others when we are in a group. In fact, the more people there are, the less likely we are to be the ones who speak up.
DEFERENCE TO AUTHORITY
When we are around people with more authority than us, we are much less likely to be the ones who take initiative to deal with a safety issue. We refrain from doing what we believe we should, because we subtly perceive such action to be the responsibility of the “leader.” It is a deeply-embedded and often non-conscious aversion to insubordination: When a non-routine decision needs to be made, it is to be made by the person with the highest position power.
When we are under pressure to produce something in a limited amount of time, it does more than make us feel rushed. It literally changes the way we perceive our own surroundings. Things that might otherwise be perceived as risks that need to be stopped are either not noticed at all or are perceived as insignificant compared to the importance of getting things done. In addition to these four, there are other forces in employees’ production contexts that inhibit them when they should speak up. If we're are going to get people to speak up more often, we need to move beyond “Stop Work Authority” and get over the assumption that motivating them will be enough. We need to help employees understand what is inhibiting them in the moment, and then give them the skills to overcome these inhibitors so that they can do what they already believe is right - speak up to keep people safe.
If your organization is like many that we see, you are spending ever increasing time and energy developing SOPs, instituting regulations from various alphabet government organizations, buying new PPE and equipment, and generally engineering your workplace to be as safe as possible. While this is both invaluable and required to be successful in our world today, is it enough? The short answer is “no”. These things are what we refer to as mechanical and procedural safeguards and are absolutely necessary but also absolutely inadequate. You see, mechanical and procedural safeguards are static, slow to change, and offer limited effectiveness while our workplaces are incredibly complex, dynamic, and hard to predict. We simply can’t create enough barriers that can cover every possible hazard in the world we live in. In short, you have to do it but you shouldn’t think that your job stops there. For us to create safety in such a complex environment we will have to find something else that permeates the organization, is reactive, and also creative. The good news is that you have the required ingredient already…..people. If we can get our people to speak up effectively when they see unsafe acts, they can be the missing element that is everywhere in your organization, can react instantly, and come up with creative fixes. But can it be that easy? Again, the short answer is “no”.
In 2010 we completed a large scale and cross-industry study into what happens when someone observes another person engaged in an unsafe action. We wanted to know how often people spoke up when they saw an unsafe act. If they didn’t speak up, why not? If they did speak up how did the other person respond? Did they become angry, defensive or show appreciation? Did the intervention create immediate behavior change and also long term behavior change, and much more? I don’t have the time and space to go into the entire finding of our research (EHS Today Article) , just know that people don’t speak up very often (39% of the time) and when they do speak up they tend to do a poor job. If you take our research findings and evaluate them in light of a long history of research into cognitive biases (e.g. the fundamental attribution error, hindsight bias, etc.) that show how humans tend to be hardwired to fail when the moment of intervention arises we know where the 61% failure rate of speaking up comes from…… it’s human nature.
We decided to test a theory and see if we could fight human nature simply by giving front line workers a set of skills to intervene when they did see an unsafe action by one of their coworkers. We taught them how to talk to the person in such a way that they eliminated defensiveness, identified the actual reasons for why the person did it the unsafe way, and then ultimately found a fix to make sure the behavior changed immediately and sustainably. We wanted to know if simply learning these skills made it more likely that people would speak up, and if they did would that 90 second intervention be dynamic and creative enough to make immediate and sustainable behavior change. What we found in one particular company gave us our answer. Simply learning intervention skills made their workforce 30% more likely to speak up. Just knowing how to talk to people made it more likely that people didn’t fall victim to the cognitive biases that I mentioned earlier. And when they did speak up, behavior changes were happening at a far great rate and lasting much longer that they ever did previously, which helped result in a 57% reduction in Total Recordable Incident Rate (TRIR) and an 89% reduction in severity rates.
I would never tell a safety professional to stop working diligently on their mechanical and procedural barriers, they should be a significant component of the foundation on which safety programs are built. However, human intervention should be the component that holds that program together when things get crazy out in the real world. It can be as simple as helping your workers understand their propensity for not intervening and then giving them the ability and confidence to speak up when they do see something unsafe.
In the world of safety, culture is a big deal. In one way or another, culture helps to shape nearly everything that happens within an organization - from shortcuts taken by shift workers to budget cuts made by managers. As important as it is, though, it seems equally as confusing and intractable. Culture appears to emerge as an unexpected by-product of organizational minutia: A brief comment made by a manager, misunderstood by direct-reports, propagated during water cooler conversations, and compounded with otherwise unrelated management decisions to downsize, outsource, reassign, promote, terminate… Safety culture can either grow wild and unmanaged - unpredictably influencing employee performance and elevating risk - or it can be understood and deliberately shaped to ensure that employees uphold the organization’s safety values.
Pin it Down
The trick is to pin it down. A conveniently simple way of capturing the idea of culture is to say that it is the “taken-for-granted way of doing things around here;” but even this is not enough. If we can understand the mechanics that drive culture, we will be better positioned to shift it in support of safety. The good news is that, while presenting itself as extraordinarily complicated, culture is remarkably ordinary at its core. It is just the collective result of our brains doing what they always do.
Our Brains at Work
Recall the first time that you drove a car. While you might have found it exhilarating, it was also stressful and exhausting. Recall how unfamiliar everything felt and how fast everything seemed to move around you. Coming to a four-way stop for the first time, your mind was racing to figure out when and how hard to press the brake pedal, where the front of the car should stop relative to the stop sign, how long you should wait before accelerating, which cars at the intersection had the right-of-way, etc. While we might make mistakes in situations like this, we should not overlook just how amazing it is that our brains can take in such a vast amount of unfamiliar information and, in a near flash, come up with an appropriate course of action. We can give credit to the brain’s “executive system” for this.
Executive or Automatic?
But this is not all that our brains do. Because the executive system has its limitations - it can only handle a small number of challenges at a time, and appears to consume an inordinate amount of our body’s energy in doing so - we would be in bad shape if we had to go through the same elaborate and stressful mental process for the rest of our lives while driving. Fortunately, our brains also “automate” the efforts that work for us. Now, when you approach a four-way-stop, your brain is free to continue thinking about what you need to pick up from the store before going home. When we come up with a way of doing something that works - even elaborate processes - our brains hand it over to an “automatic system.” This automatic system drives our future actions and decisions when we find ourselves in similar circumstances, without pestering the executive system to come up with an appropriate course of action.
Why it Matters
What does driving have to do with culture? Whatever context we find ourselves in - whether it is a four-way-stop or a pre-job planning meeting - our brains take in the range of relevant information, come up with an effective course of action, try it out and, when it works, automate it as “the way to do things in this situation.”
Let’s imagine that a young employee leaves new-hire orientation with a clear understanding of the organization’s safety policies and operating procedures. At that moment, assuming that he wants to succeed within the organization, he believes that proactively contributing during a pre-job planning meeting will lead to recognition and professional success.
Unfortunately, at many companies, the actual ‘production’ context is quite different than the ‘new-hire orientation’ context. There are hurried supervisors, disinterested ‘old timers’, impending deadlines and too little time, and what seemed like the right course of action during orientation now looks like a sure-fire way to get ostracized and opposed. His brain’s “executive system” quickly determines that staying quiet and “pencil whipping” the pre-job planning form like everyone else is a better course of action; and in no time, our hapless new hire is doing so automatically - without thinking twice about whether it is the right thing to do.
If culture is the collective result of brains figuring out how to thrive in a given context, then changing culture comes down to changing context - changing the “rules for success.” If you learned to drive in the United States but find yourself at an intersection in England, your automated way of driving will likely get you into an accident. When the context changes, the executive system has to wake up, find a new way to succeed given the details of the new context, and then automate that for the future.
How does this translate to changing a safety culture? It means that, to change safety culture, we need to change the context that employees work in so that working safely and prioritizing safety when making decisions leads to success.
Three Basic Steps:
Identify the “taken-for-granted” behaviors that you want employees to adopt. Do you want employees to report all incidents and near-misses? Do you want managers to approve budget for safety-critical expenditures?
This exercise amounts to defining your safety culture. Avoid the common mistake of falling back on vague, safety-oriented value statements. If you aren’t specific here, you will not have a solid foundation for the next two steps.
Analyze employees’ contexts to see what is currently inhibiting or competing against these targeted, taken-for-granted behaviors. Are shift workers criticized or blamed by their supervisors for near-misses? Are the managers who cut cost by cutting corners also the ones being promoted?
Be sure to look at the entire context. Often times, factors like physical layout, reporting structure or incentive programs play a critical role in inhibiting these desired, taken-for-granted behaviors.
Change the context so that, when employees exhibit the desired behaviors that you identified in Step 1, they are more likely to thrive within the organization.
“Thriving” means that employees receive recognition, satisfy the expectations of their superiors, avoid resistance and alienation, achieve their professional goals, and avoid conflicting demands for their time and energy, among other things.
Give It a Try
Shifting culture comes down to strategically changing the context that people find themselves in. Give it a try and you might find that it is easier than you expected. You might even consider trying it at home. Start at Step 1; pick one simple "taken-for-granted" behavior and see if you can get people to automate this behavior by changing their context. If you continue the experiment and create a stable working context that consistently encourages safe performance, working safely will eventually become "how people do things around here."
Our 2013 Newsletter Series examines the Top 11 Characteristics of "Effective Organizations". To qualify for this distinction, an organization must not only meet its stated goals and accomplish its stated mission, but the mission and goals must be ones that people would want to invest in and/or participate in because they bring superior value to not only the individual, but also customers and society in general. So far we have seen that an Effective Organization:
#1 -- clearly defines and communicates mission / goals / values / expectations
#2 -- aligns all aspects of the organization including people, systems and processes
#3 -- models and develops Facilitative-Relational Leadership throughout the organization
#4 -- holds everyone accountable with both positive and negative consequences for results
#5 -- builds a collaborative and empowered environment based upon teamwork
#6 -- tolerates appropriate risk taking and learns from both success and failure in an attempt to be innovative
#7 -- focuses on meeting customer expectations and needs.
This month we will look at how an Effective Organization:
#8 -- creates a culture based on honesty, integrity and mutual respect.
Honesty & Integrity
Let’s start our discussion by focusing first on honesty and integrity. What does it mean to have a culture based on honesty and integrity? We tend to think of honesty as “telling the truth” and integrity as “doing what you say you will do”. I once heard someone define integrity as “doing what is right even when no one else is watching” and I think that is a really good working definition of the term.
Have you ever worked with someone that you didn’t trust because that person told you one thing and did another? Maybe it only happened on one occasion, but sometimes it only takes one violation of trust to create distrust. As a customer, have you ever been promised one thing, but gotten something else? How did this make you feel about patronizing that company again?
Effective organizations are built on a foundation of honesty and integrity because their leaders know that this creates an environment of trust both within the organization and with those that do business with the organization. Leaders know that the willingness of their employees to follow them and of customers to patronize them is determined by the level of trust that those employees and customers have in them.
These leaders also know that this is a result of a history of them meeting expectations that have been clearly articulated and communicated. In effect, this creates an environment where employees are willing to follow leadership because they can predict outcomes.....an environment where customers are willing to pay money for goods or services because they can predict outcomes.
Moral & Ethical Behavior
Honesty and integrity also require moral and ethical behavior as a component. These concepts are difficult to define, but at a minimum include a set or code of accepted values and principles that follow not only legal requirements, but also take into consideration the impact that decisions have on others, both internally and externally. Honest people and organizations are those that are seen to consistently and predictably abide by society’s accepted code of morality and ethics even when faced with the opportunity to violate that code. Unfortunately, history is full of examples of people and organizations that have violated society’s legal and moral code. Fortunately, leaders of effective organizations do not usually appear on that list.
Effective organizations also attempt to create a culture based on “mutual respect”. Mutual respect is an outward and reciprocal regard for the dignity of another person. It is demonstrated by the way two or more individuals interact, especially when communicating with one another. It involves an attempt to understand the views and feelings of another person and the other person doing the same in return. It involves not only attempting to understand views and feelings, but doing so in a manner that communicates interest through the way we look (body language), what we say (our words) and how we say it (tone of voice). Mutual respect does not mean always agreeing with, or even liking others....it means ensuring mutual opportunity to express views while maintaining one's dignity. Failure to engage in mutual respect very often leads to friction, conflict, and ultimately organizational (and even personal relationship) failure. If you don’t believe this, just Google “divorce attorneys” and see how many hits you get!
What's the point?
Our introductory definition of "Effective Organizations" makes the case for honesty, integrity and mutual respect -- bring superior value to not only the individual, but also customers and society in general. While value is most easily seen from a financial perspective, it is most clearly felt by internal and external customers in the way they are treated -- especially when nobody is looking.
What does it mean to have a "Formal Culture" and an "Informal Culture"?
Have you ever instituted a new policy or procedure into your organization, spent countless hours and dollars trying to drive the initiative throughout the organization, only to see it fall flat? Organizations large and small face a similar problem -- how to make their organization become what they envision it to be.
When organizational experts refer to the overall performance of an organization, they often use the word “culture”. While there is disagreement on the exact definition of organizational culture, most would agree that it includes the values and behaviors that the majority of participants engage in; what most of the people believe and do most of the time. This is called the “informal culture” as compared to the “formal culture”, or what the leadership wants the culture to be. It makes no difference if your organization is a large corporation, a small “mom and pop”, a non-profit, or an educational institution, each of you have a formal and informal culture. One aspect of great organizations is that they close the gap between the two cultures so that “what’s going on - out there” very much resembles the vision of leadership.
“Informal Culture is what most of the people believe and do most of the time.”
You may wonder if these great organizations close this culture gap by hiring the “right people”, or if they do something more intentional to close this gap. The answer quite simply is both. Great organizations start with great people, but they also understand and affect the other aspects of their culture.
The Best Organizations
The best organizations don’t stop with simply creating rules and policies, they do much more to impact the everyday behavior of their employees. If you’ll refer back to our August 2012 Post on the role of contextual factors in industrial safety incident prevention, the very best bosses and organizations understand that human performance is a result of complex systems. Organizational factors such as rules, policies, and reward systems are only a portion of the complex system that drives human performance. The best organizations understand that it is also people, both the individual and intact teams, plus surroundings that drive their overall performance. If the employee base has failed to implement a new directive from leadership, there could be several reasons affecting this. It could be that employees don’t understand the new initiative, operational pressures contradict the initiative, they don’t have the equipment necessary to make it happen, or a myriad of other factors. The very best organizations are those that are able to gather field intelligence detailing actual performance and factors driving the performance, and then institute corrective measures that enable the workforce to align their own performance with the vision of leadership.
So what does that mean for you if you are in an organization with a gap between your formal and informal cultures? We would first encourage you to perform a cultural analysis to get a better understanding of your informal culture. With this knowledge you will be able to understand what contextual factors are driving the performance of your employees. This information will allow you to initiate corrective measures to close the gap between your formal and informal cultures. The best organizations don’t make the mistake of simply focusing on changing people, they focus on the entire context to enable those on board to perform to a higher standard.
We are inclined to conform to what we believe the people around us expect and value. This has been demonstrated by decades of research into social conformity dating back to the Solomon Asch Line studies in the early 1950’s. The crux of this research is that when in small groups, we tend to acquiesce (conform) to the view of the group even if it is not our natural view to begin with. Think about how this would impact team decision making. When the majority have one view, even when we have a different view, we are less likely to express that view because dissenters are labeled trouble-makers and most of us don’t want to be trouble-makers. Dissent does, however, serve some very important functions.
1. Dissent boosts group creativity
While conformity results in fewer variations, creativity thrives on a variety of ideas.
2. Dissent can prevent failures
We conform to what we *believe* others expect and value, but sometimes people are doing things simply because they aren't aware of the possible negative consequences.
For example, in the safety arena, dissent (which we call ‘Intervention’) helps to prevent undesired consequences by stopping an unsafe behavior. Imagine that you see two co-workers put a tool into service that you see is compromised. Speaking up could mean the difference between operations as normal and a catastrophic event. Unfortunately, the group norm is to “keep quiet”, so you conform and don’t speak up and the tool goes into service.
The key to capitalizing on dissent is to do it right. If you go about it with a critical tone, unflappable confidence that you are right, or punitive intent, not only will it probably do more harm than good, but you are sure to end up with that ‘trouble-maker’ label.
What we learned upon completing a large-scale (3,000+ employees) study of safety interventions is that employees directly intervene in only about two of five unsafe actions and conditions that they observe in the workplace. The obvious concern is that a significant number of unsafe operations that could be stopped are not, which increases the likelihood of incidents and injuries; but this statistic is troubling for a less obvious reason - its cultural implication.
The influence of culture on safe and unsafe employee behavior is of such concern that regulatory bodies, like OSHA in the U.S. and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the U.K., have strongly encouraged organizations to foster “positive safety cultures” as part their overall safety management programs.
Employees are inclined to behave in a way that they perceive to be congruent (consistent) with the social values and expectations, or “norms,” that constitute their organization’s culture. These behavioral norms are largely established through social interaction and communication, and in particular through the ways that managers and supervisors instruct, reward and allocate their attention around employees. When supervisors and opinion leaders in organizations infrequently or inconsistently address unsafe behavior, it leads employees to believe that formal safety standards are not highly valued and employees are not genuinely expected to adhere to them. In short, the low frequency of safety interventions in the workplace contributes to a culture in which employees are not positively influenced to work safely.
These two implications – (1) that a significant number of unsafe operations are not being stopped, and (2) that safety culture is diminished – compound to create a problematic state of affairs. Employees are more likely to act unsafely in organizations with diminished safety cultures, yet their unsafe behavior is less likely to be stopped in those organizations.
(Look for the full-length article in the May/June 2011 edition of EHS Today.)
By now you’ve probably heard about the hit reality TV show, Undercover Boss. If you haven’t, the concept involves a Chief Officer of a company infiltrating a few locations within the organization, disguised as a newly hired employee. The objective is to find out “what’s really going on out there”. During the 1-hour show, real problems that are inherent in the organization and the effect those problems have on employees, are discovered. At the end of the show, the executive brings in the people that he/she interacted with and pulls back the veil, so to speak. They then talk about some key strategies for overcoming the problems that were identified. It makes for great TV, but is it the right method? Understanding your organization is critical, but our experience is that how you do it matters. The RAD Group has been successfully helping organizations assess their cultures, and the problems inherent in them for many years. So here is a simple review of how we do it? First, we interview the executive team to gain an understanding of the culture that they view as their ideal. We then head to all levels of the organization, including the front-line and interview a cross section of employees. We conduct one-on-one interviews and all information is completely confidential. It is critical that the employees feel that they can trust us so that they will be candid in their comments, so we spend time building trust with each person that we interview. We have specific questions that we use to start the interviews, but when issues within the culture are discovered we investigate. Once the data is gathered we then analyze all of the information and evaluate it in light of the ideal culture that was identified by the executives. Invariably there are gaps between the actual culture and the desired ideal. With these gaps identified, we can then devise strategies to close those gaps.
So what’s the difference? In Undercover Boss, we see two glaring issues. First, the executive is only exposed to a very small sample within the organization. It could be likened to a doctor simply taking the blood pressure of a patient and declaring that the person has heart disease. There are many more tests that must be run before an accurate diagnosis can be made. Secondly, in the TV show the data is gathered by tricking the employees into trusting the new hire, only to find out later that it was an executive all along. With our method transparency is crucial and employees know exactly why they are being interviewed, that they are safe from repercussions, and that the information gathered will be used to make their organization better. Since they know that they are anonymously participating in a diagnosis designed to identify both what is working and what is not they are more willing to contribute and help give us a clear picture of the organizational culture as it actually is. Since they are involved in identifying issues, they are also more willing to accept changes that will inevitably follow.